In our final installment, we'll take a look at the quintessential holiday film, It's A Wonderful Life. The film began life as "The Greatest Gift," a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern that he printed as a Christmas card in 1943, which got to Hollywood, and was soon being developed into a film by RKO and then Legend Films by Frank Capra. It was released in 1946, and 68 years later, still stands out as one of the ultimate holiday classics.
It's Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, and one George Bailey (James Stewart) desperately needs help. To help him, the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is briefed on George's life: how he saved his baby brother Harry from drowning, how he stopped a distracted druggist from poisoning a child, how he met his future wife Mary (Donna Reed) and had to stay in Bedford Falls rather than going on a major vacation when his father unexpectedly died.
Clarence is told about how time and time again, George has had to give up his dreams of going to college and becoming a man of the world to keep his father's building and loan business in honest hands to help out the people of Bedford Falls. Even when he finally marries Mary, they are forced to sacrifice their honeymoon fund to keep the Building & Loan out of the hands of the greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George's hopes of getting out of Bedford Falls grow even dimmer as he and Mary move into an old house and have children.
Then comes World War II, and Harry (Todd Karns) is able to enlist and manages to shoot down several enemy planes and save an entire transport, while everyone back home helps out with the war effort as they can. As they expect Harry back home for Christmas, George's uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 to be deposited for the Building & Loan, which will cause the firm to go bankrupt. (Mr. Potter accidentally got hold of it and kept it, sabotaging George.) As a bank examiner was inspecting the place, George is about to be arrested. Getting stressed out and depressed, George snaps at his family, has a drink, then contemplates jumping into a river to commit suicide.
Enter Clarence, who falls into the river, forcing George to save him. After recovering from the cold, George admits to Clarence that he wishes he'd never been born. Clarence decides to grant George's wish, and George goes to explore the town, which has suddenly become the corrupt Pottersville. George is able to see every life he touched in his life suddenly ruined, or made hard and cruel due to him never being able to interfere, from Mary being an old maid to the druggist now being homeless and in disgrace to the town being overrun with nightclubs and pawn shops to Harry never being able to do the service he provided in the war because he drowned. Realizing that this world contains nothing he loved, George wishes for his life back.
Suddenly, George finds himself back in Bedford Falls, appreciating that even though he's going to jail, he's back in a world that he loved and contains people who love him. Just when the bank examiner is about to arrest George in his home, townspeople arrive to donate money to save George in the nick of time. The donated funds far exceed George's loss, so he's off the hook. George gets a little gift from Clarence (his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which he was seen reading earlier) as his daughter hears a bell ring, and remarks, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings." George smiles and adds, "Attaboy, Clarence," and joins in singing a round of "Auld Lang Syne."
The film's message is obvious: self-sacrifice can be rewarded, and friendship is worth much more than money. Altogether, though, everyone does wonder what becomes of Mr. Potter, who absconded with the $8,000. When would he get a comeuppance? Would the bank examiner inspect him next and discover that he suddenly has an extra sum that curiously matches the one George lost? Would Mr. Potter confess and return the money? Or perhaps he never gets caught and dies a miser?
The film has had a few remakes and adaptations, including several radio and stage versions. The television film It Happened One Christmas retold the story, but with a female lead instead. The movies Mr. Destiny and The Family Man also riff off the same theme, while the Adam Sandler comedy Click shows some similarities to the classic as well. There was a TV movie that gave Clarence another adventure and there was word that there would be a sequel about George's evil grandson, but it was announced that the production team lacked the necessary rights to make the film. (And anyway, it'd make the story's similarity to A Christmas Carol all the more noticeable.)
So, break out this one once again this Christmas. Even if you can quote the film by heart, enjoy a very well-done film.